DATE: Sunday, March 16, 1997                TAG: 9703160053

SECTION: FRONT                   PAGE: A1   EDITION: FINAL 


DATELINE: RICHMOND                          LENGTH:  173 lines


Since his conviction for capital murder in 1986, Joseph Roger O'Dell III has behaved like a one-man Geraldo Rivera television special.

In lawsuits and letters to officials, he has crusaded to take the bar exam, have his sperm frozen, donate his organs, televise his execution and have his body stuffed, mounted and displayed after his death - as a deterrent to crime.

Over the years, O'Dell has appeared twice on Phil Donahue's show, persuaded a wealthy philanthropist to pay for DNA analysis of the blood evidence in his case, and taken the name ``Man Mountain,'' in order to ``marry'' a wealthy New Jersey woman ``under the Cherokee nation tribal laws.''

Recently, he recruited Pope John Paul II, the Italian and European parliaments and Sister Helen Prejean - the author of ``Dead Man Walking'' - as his advocates.

``I feel like he just loves publicity any way he can get it,'' said Gail Lee, a sister of Helen Schartner, the 44-year-old woman O'Dell was convicted of killing outside a Virginia Beach club in February 1985.

``Why else would he come up with all this different stuff?''

For 12 years, Lee said, she and her family have risked seeing O'Dell's photograph every time they opened a newspaper or turned on a television. The family would like to forget about O'Dell, she said, but they can't seem to avoid him long enough to do so.

There will be no avoiding O'Dell this week. On Monday, legislators with the European Parliament - which opposes the death penalty - plan to call for a new trial in his case at a press conference in Washington. On Tuesday, O'Dell's lawyers will argue before the U.S. Supreme Court.

At issue: a 1994 Supreme Court ruling - in the case of Simmons vs. South Carolina - that judges must inform juries in capital cases when a defendant is ineligible for parole. If O'Dell's jury had known he could never get out of prison, his lawyers argue, they might not have sentenced him to death.

The court is expected to decide by May whether the Simmons ruling should be retroactive. If they decide yes, O'Dell could get a new sentencing hearing. If no, he will be out of avenues for appeal and an execution date will be set.

One issue that will not come up: O'Dell's claim that DNA analysis of two bloodstains from his clothing proves his innocence.

``That claim has been rejected by every one of the 13 Court of Appeals judges who has heard it and by the District Court that originally considered the claim,'' noted Justice Antonin Scalia when the Court stayed O'Dell's execution in December.

``Not one of the judges reviewing this evidence has been persuaded of O'Dell's innocence.''

``He knows he did it,'' Gail Lee said. ``He just won't take responsibility. That's one of the things that bothers me the most.''

Sitting in her sunny, glassed-in porch in Pungo on a recent afternoon, Lee, her daughter, Maggie, and her mother, Emily Capps, recounted the years they have spent reading and hearing about O'Dell. On the table lay a scrapbook Lee has kept of newspaper articles documenting O'Dell's exploits and long journey through the courts.

``Inmates Want Girlfriends Artificially Inseminated After Men's Executions,'' read the headlines in the scrapbook. ``Two on Death Row Offer Organs''; ``Witness Recants Testimony in Death-Row Case''; ``Pope Seeks Clemency for Virginia Killer.''

``You know how they say there are five stages of grief?'' said Maggie Lee, 22. ``We may get to a certain stage or a certain point, and then we have to go back to court for a hearing or there's something else in the news and we're right back where we started.

``So you never finish. You go through the anger and the hatred and the depression and you're finally getting to acceptance, and you have to start all over again.''

Emily Capps said she has friends whose children have also died. But for them, grief ``softens over time.''

``With us, it can't soften,'' she said.

``The newspaper and the television, they always put in the whole sordid thing - everything he did to her. She's murdered again every time we see it in the paper because every detail is brought back.''

Calling all death penalty laws fundamentally unfair and unconstitutional, the U.S. Supreme Court banned capital punishment in 1972. In 1976, the court paved the way for states to resume executions so long as they adhered to a lengthy review process to ensure the constitutionality of each death sentence. But the process takes a long time and each step along the way is considered a news event.

For that reason, said George Kendall, a death penalty expert with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund in New York, prosecutors should think about murder victims' families before deciding to pursue the death penalty.

``There ought to be a kind of Miranda warning for victims,'' Kendall said.

``The death penalty turns a spotlight on these cases. Prosecutors should say to families, `Look, ``Hard Copy'' is going to be interested in this. Are you prepared for that?' ''

Virginia Beach Commonwealth's Attorney Bob Humphreys scoffs at that notion. Humphreys routinely warns families about future publicity, he said.

``But hearing it, and then actually having to live through it for six to 10 years are two different things,'' he said.

``After 12 years of these antics, I wouldn't be surprised if (Schartner's family) feels Joe O'Dell deserves to die even more now than he deserved to die before.''

About that, said Lee, Humphreys is right.

But it's not because O'Dell has pursued artificial insemination or lobbied to take the bar exam or asked that his execution be televised, she said. And it's not for revenge.

``I have wanted revenge in the past,'' she said. ``But in my heart, I know I don't feel like that anymore.''

It is because O'Dell's death is the only thing the family trusts.

``I want justice,'' Lee said. ``And I want to be sure he never hurts anyone again. He's already killed someone in prison. Nobody can guarantee me life sentence. Justices retire, administrations change. Rules change. Somebody says, `Oh, it's just too cruel to have all these people in prison,' and then lets him out on parole. I mean, he was out on parole when he killed Helen.''

O'Dell, a Roanoke native who grew up in Norfolk's Ocean View, has spent most of his life in prison. In 1965, he was sentenced to 20 years for the murder of a fellow inmate.

Out on parole in 1975, he was charged with the robbery, assault and abduction of a 23-year-old Florida Zippy Mart clerk. The clerk, Donna Doyle, testified that he put a gun to her head, beat her with it and threatened to rape her.

``The difference between Helen Schartner and me was, I was lucky,'' said Doyle, now 44 and living in Florida. ``Nothing more than that. I was lucky.

``If death penalty opponents are looking for a poster boy for their cause, they sure picked the wrong guy.''

O'Dell was convicted in the Florida case and sentenced to 114 years in prison. But 10 years later, out on parole again, he was arrested for the Schartner killing.

Representing himself in the subsequent capital murder case, O'Dell appeared in court 29 times and filed 179 motions before the trial even began. One of his motions contained a genealogical chart of Schartner purporting to show that she was related to nearly everyone in Virginia Beach. In another motion, ``he referred to the entire legal system as a galactic conspiracy,'' remembered Stephen Test, a Virginia Beach lawyer who prosecuted O'Dell.

``He was trying to create a voluminous record,'' Test said. ``We referred to him disaffectionately as the jailhouse termite. Because he was going to keep gnawing and gnawing until he got through to something.''

Humphreys and Lee remember a woman who attended the trial and developed a crush on O'Dell.

``He would mouth things to her during the trial,'' Humphreys said. ``He had a way with women. Although what they see in him is beyond me.''

In 1991, O'Dell petitioned the Virginia Supreme Court to preserve his sperm so that his girlfriend at the time - a Virginia Beach insurance adjuster named Sheryl - could bear his child after his execution. Now he has a new love interest, Lori Urs, a New Jersey woman whom he met while she was volunteering for a prisoner advocacy group. Urs, part press agent, part promoter and part spokeswoman for O'Dell, has been a driving force behind the international attention recently focused on the case.

In all of this, her family feels, Helen Schartner has been lost. More completely than her death, the facts of her murder and the subsequent legal odyssey of Joe O'Dell have stolen her from them.

``I can't remember her,'' said Schartner's mother, Emily Capps, her voice trailing. ``Sometimes at night I try to think of her but it's always . . .''

``It's always that last night, isn't it?'' Gail Lee asked.

``I do that, too, Mama.'' ILLUSTRATION: Color photos

TAMARA VONINSKI/The Virginian-Pilot

Emily Capps holds a picture of her daughter, Helen C. Schartner, who

was murdered 12 years ago. Capps also holds a bunch of daisies,

Helen's favorite flowers.


Helen Schartner cuddles with her niece Maggie Lee and her nephew

Rusty Lee in a photo taken 15 years ago. Schartner was murdered in




Helen Schartner's family has kept a scrapbook of all of the articles

written in the 12 years since her murder. The man convicted in the

slaying has gone on a highly publicized quest for a new trial or at

least a new sentencing hearing.


Color photo

[For complete graphic, please see microfilm] KEYWORDS: DEATH ROW MURDER RAPE


[home] [ETDs] [Image Base] [journals] [VA News] [VTDL] [Online Course Materials] [Publications]

Send Suggestions or Comments to
by CNB